Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id QAA20610 (8.6.9/5.3[ref firstname.lastname@example.org] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from email@example.com); Mon, 18 Mar 2002 16:03:34 GMT X-Originating-IP: [126.96.36.199] From: "Grant Callaghan" <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com Subject: Re: metaphors, science, religion Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 07:57:39 -0800 Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed Message-ID: <LAW2-F74S2erbvM53Wk00016c52@hotmail.com> X-OriginalArrivalTime: 18 Mar 2002 15:57:40.0053 (UTC) FILETIME=[A1A5C850:01C1CE95] Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org Precedence: bulk Reply-To: email@example.com
>Subject: metaphors, science, religion
>Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 16:09:14 -0500
>Grant writes: "For subjects like mysticism or religion, we have to resort
>metaphor in an attempt to explain ideas that are too abstract to be
>understood through language."
>When you say that that metaphor is used in an attempt to explain ideas that
>are too abstract for language, your statement comes across as odd as a
>minimum and potentially incoherent because metaphor is intrinsic to
>language. Further, somewhere along the way metonymy got lost.
What I meant when I said "ideas too abstract for language" I was talking
about ideas for which the language does not currently have any words. Since
the words don't already exist, we borrow them from other areas of our
culture and they become metaphors. The other problem with using language to
talk about abstract ideas is it's impossible to make clear what the words
refer to. Thus language becomes an inadequate attempt to say the unsayable.
As Lao Tze said, the Tao that can be explained is not the Tao.
A third problem with language in the explication of scinece is time. When a
new concept arises and there is no established vocabulary with which to talk
about it, people will need time and experimentation to come up with words
they can agree mean the same thing to both reader and writer. Dictionaries
are a good tool to use in the solution of that problem, but it takes years
for a word to be included in a dictionary.
Take the word "string" for example. Why was that word chosen and what,
exactly, does it refer to? You can't see a quantum string or even prove
that one exists. It takes a small book to describe the referent but even
then who can say it's been adequately explained?
Or look at the truble we have pinning down the meaning of "meme." Is the
language we are using adequate to explain what the word "meme" refers to?
It seems simple enough to me, but the problem is getting others to agree
that my concept of the word's meaning is the same as that of the other
people who are using it. Or getting me to agree with their idea. Until we
can agree on that, the word will always mean different things to different
people and can't be used in the precise way that scientific terms need to be
I like to use Chinese and Japanese as an example of the problems of using
language to explain things. But this is becoming too complex and will take
up too much space to explain in a simple email. My point, though, is that
the Chinese and the Japanese had to borrow English words to talk about ideas
that didn't exist in their own language until they came into contact with
us. The chinese writing system makes this very difficult, while Japanese
has a tool called kana that allows them to import the sound. So when the
Chinese borrowed the name "America" to refer to the U.S., they called it
"Mei Guo" and used two ideographs that mean "pretty country." In the
Taiwanese dialect, it became "mi guo" which means "rice country." The
Japanese were able to use syllabic symbols that carried the sounds "A mei ri
ka." but had no conflicting meaning in Japanese.
As you can see the Chinese chose words which had similar sounds but which
carried meanings that were not indicative of what they referred to.
Multiply this by all the new words that science and medicine have produced,
and you can see why the students in China use English text books for the
study of these subjects. Their own language gets in the way of
understanding the concepts.
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